A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James; 2014

A Brief History of Seven Killings is easily one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read in terms of content and language. It begins with a fictionalized account of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (referred to as “The Singer” in the novel). Very little is known about the assassination attempt, and Marlon James fills the gap. But the book is less about The Singer and more about the gang violence that has controlled Jamaica since its independence in 1962. The turf war between the Jamaican Labor Party and People’s National Party led to extreme poverty and violence. The Singer is caught in the middle, along with their criminal gangs. At the same time, the CIA, Cubans, and the Colombian drug cartels were all converging on Jamaica with guns and money. This all comes to a head with the peace concert in December 1976. The book is also partially based on the real-life Shower Posse (renamed Storm Posse in the novel), who began their rise in Kingston in the 60’s and spread to America; by he 1980’s they controlled a significant portion of the crack trade in New York and Miami. The result is a novel that lays out an intricate set of connections and potential truths between the attempted assassination of the Singer and the rise and fall of a JLP gang leader named Josey Wales. If all of that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. While reading this I had to keep stopping and did a lot of google searches.

IMG_3866Brief History is nearly 700 pages and starts with a four-page cast of characters. It’s extremely violent, contains a ton of pop culture references, and heavily features Jamaican Patois. It’s told from over a dozen points of view and takes place over the course of 30 years. It is by no means an easy, breezy read. It started to lose me towards the middle-end, when James takes us away from Jamaica and to the United States, but it came together so brilliantly in the last section that I was knocked over by the time I got to the last page. It took me so long to read this that now I feel a little bit weird that I’m not toting it around with me anymore. Not for the faint of heart, but a seriously rewarding read.

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Paper Towns

Unfortunately, I was stuck in the airport for 8 hours this past weekend trying to get home, so I read Paper Towns. I think I was expecting something insipid and juvenile, but Paper Towns was so good that I kept forgetting that it’s YA. This is probably the best modern YA book I have read, ever. A lot of the time, I feel like writers have to sacrifice vocabulary or plot to write a book geared towards “the youth”, but Green does neither of these things.

For those unfamiliar, Paper Towns takes place in the final month of Quentin Jacobson’s high school career. Four weeks before he’s due to graduate, his paramour, neighbor and friend, Margo, appears at his bedroom window and convinces him to spend the night out with her. Margo has an intricate plan to get revenge on all her fake high school friends (highly relatable plot point) and Q helps her. The next morning, Quentin wakes up to realize that Margo has disappeared. The rest of the novel follows Q and his group of friends as they try to follow the trail of clues that Margo has left.

As Q tries to unravel the clues that Margo has left for him, he begins to learn more about Margo herself. Let me just say that I am glad I did not read this in high school, when I was completely in love with the idea of being in love. It would have made me cry like the sap I am trying to pretend I am not.

My favorite part about this book is the explanation for the title. Green describes a paper town as a town created by cartographers to protect against copyright infringement. For example, if a cartographer creates a map and adds in the made-up town of Agloe (real example from the book) in New York, he can then check all other maps made after his to make sure no one is copying his map. I have been unsuccessful in discovering if this is a real phenomenon, but I believe it might be.

-A

 

The Dinner

The Dinner by Herman Koch; 2013

I got The Dinner from the library a couple of years ago and read about 50 pages, but didn’t have time to finish it. I picked it up again over the long weekend and it was a delightful, fast read. The Dinner is a translated novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. The novel’s premise is the gathering of two couples for dinner at a high-end restaurant. They have something important to discuss involving their two teenage sons. Paul is one of the diners and the narrator of the evening. Trust that we learn every detail about each course of the meal.

The book relies on the gradual disclosure of secrets, and it progresses with a mounting nastiness and brutality. That said, it is definitely more attuned to the cultural norms and expectations of a European society. It’s more of a thriller than a mystery.

As more times passes from when I finished the book, I actually like it more and more. I gave it a solid “3” on Goodreads when I finished, but now I’m leaning more towards a 4. I think I was initially just flat-out disturbed, but the more time I have away from it, the more I can appreciate its structure and what Koch was able to achieve. It’s sinister, and it really makes you think about moral choices. Now that I know the outcome I’m tempted to turn around and read it again, paying closer attention to the details.

Through the Looking Glass

AliceLewis Carroll is crazy. Genuinely. This was my third(ish) read through of Through the Looking Glass. I have this odd relationship with this book where I keep coming back to it, even though I wouldn’t say I love it. I don’t know what makes me pick it up every few months. I think it just makes me happy. Which should be odd, considering the creepy backstory. If you don’t know by now, this may come as a shock. Lewis Caroll was in love with the OG Alice, the then ten-year-old Alice Liddell. Casual. I always forget about this poem (pictured), and it is so creepy. This might be the best acrostic I have ever read. Still creepy though.

-A

Why Not Me?

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling; 2015

IMG_3936To begin, I think Mindy is incredible, amazing, and very inspirational. She has accomplished SO MUCH and she has worked extremely hard for everything that she has achieved. I felt so-so about Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?, but I genuinely loved Why Not Me? Her second book is a lot more honest and insightful than its predecessor. It also made me laugh out loud many more times. Why Not Me? is another collection of personal essays held together by the larger theme that Mindy’s life has change a lot in the past three years now that she has her own TV show. She writes a lot about work and being in the writer’s room, which I enjoyed and appreciated. She also talks frankly about friendships, dating, being in the public eye, her body image, and her sense of self. Apart from that, my favorite essay was the romantic comedy/alternate history to her own life which is hysterical and also just a really good piece of writing that makes me wish she’ll write fiction.

My favorite piece of wisdom was this little bit near the end, when Mindy calls out undeserved confidence: “Confidence is just entitlement…simply the belieg that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it…Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.” Preach, girlfriend.

-M

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell; 2013

I was very pleasantly surprised by Eleanor & Park. Now that my Sarah Dessen days are (sadly) far behind me, I’m not always a YA fan, although I dabble very occasionally. Eleanor & Park takes place in 1986 in Nebraska. There are a lot of music and comic book references, but not so many that it becomes annoying or distracting if you’re not familiar with all of them, like me. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus and become an unlikely pair. I’m hesitant to say much more than that, because I think it’s better to be surprised by all of it. It’s about a first love, and things do escalate pretty quickly, but such is the nature of YA. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.

The writing is clean, engaging, and accessible for both YA and adult readers. Park’s parents are so perfectly drawn, and think Rowell has the impressive ability to tap into the teenager experience really convincingly. Her characters are still developing, still messy, still awkward. AKA real life, amirite? This was by far the most convincing contemporary YA sophisticated enough to convince me to become the occasional YA fan. Please do read!

H is for Hawk

Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do  not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale…We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived her before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history. -H is for Hawk, pg. 265 

I’m not sure where to begin with this one, because, let me tell you, this book is fantastic. Let me preface anything else I will write by saying I read about this book almost a year ago, before it was published. I was trolling the internet when I found a review for H is for Hawk. Not only am I obsessed with British nature/animal books (see Waterland by Graham Swift and Watership Down by Richard Adams for more context), but Helen MacDonald names her hawk Mabel!! My dog’s name! Based on this sound logic alone, I knew I had to read this.

H is for Hawk tells the at-times-tragic, at-times-hilarious story of Helen’s attempt to train a Goshawk after her father’s sudden death. Helen had trained hawks before, but never a Goshawk. Goshawk’s are known for their ferocity, and before her father’s death, Helen had always shunned the idea of training one. Following the lead of TH White, who published his story about training a Goshawk in 1951, Helen leads us through a treacherous British landscape filled with blood, death, and redemption. Whether you are interested in history, TH White, birds, family, love, or whatever, I would recommend this book.

I took my time with this book. On one hand this was because I had been waiting to read it for so long and when I’m excited about a book I don’t want it to end. On the other hand, this was a hard book to read! I had to keep looking up words that I didn’t understand. Helen’s vocabulary is daunting, as is her knowledge of hawk training and TH White.

I can’t decide if I want to become a total weird-o and read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker and The Goshawk by TH White, or if I should just let the hawk obsession die down naturally.

-A

Update: I went to see Helen MacDonald speak last night on her book of poetry Shaler’s Fish. She ended up mainly discussing H is for Hawk, though she did begin by reading one of her poems. Let me just say my appreciation for and admiration of Helen has only increased. She is one of those people who you can just immediately tell is very intelligent. She’s not showy about it, but you can definitely tell. As someone who is obsessed with animals and the human-to-animal bond, I actually teared up twice listening to her describe her relationship to Mabel. When asked about her relationship to the bird, Helen said that Mabel “took me to the underworld and back on her wings.” Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is beautiful.